Note to Students: When Your Reading Assignments Put You to Sleep
by Tina Blue
September 21, 2002
Maybe you're just sleepy.
I often hear students complain that every time they try to read their textbooks, they fall asleep.
There are probably a lot of reasons why this happens, but one that is typically overlooked is, well, sleepiness. Most Americans suffer from chronic sleep deprivation. The average number of hours an American sleeps each night has dropped from 9 or more hours in the 19th and early 20th centuries to just 7 hours today. The widespread use of artificial light (not to mention further technological advances) has completely disrupted normal sleep patterns.
The body's need for sleep is non-negotiable, but most of us treat sleep as if it were a luxury and seldom do what we must to ensure that we get enough of it. Sometimes we have no choice. Modern life is very demanding, and with work, school, and necessary chores, it's not always possible to squeeze in a good night's sleep or to follow a regular sleep schedule (though that doesn't make it less
necessary for our health and well-being).
But even when we can sleep, we often don't. We have so many options that our ancestors didn't have for playing around after the sun goes down: 500 TV channels, videos and video games, the internet, dance clubs, and all sorts of other activities that seem so much more fun and interesting than sleep. And since most of us don't do the sort of strenuous physical work our forebears did, we sometimes have more trouble falling asleep, even when we do allow ourselves to go to bed.
Most American students are almost always very, very tired. I have been teaching and interacting with students for 30 years, and I know this to be true. And if you are not well-rested, it's hard even to stay awake for something you really want to do.
I think of a 22-year-old friend who fell sound asleep about a half hour into Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace--a movie she had been looking forward to for months. We woke her up (with difficulty), but she soon dozed off again.
Oh, stop. Just because you found The Phantom Menace soporific and think falling asleep is the proper response to the film, that doesn't mean everyone did. Michelle loved the part of the film she managed to stay awake for, and when she returned the following week to watch the whole thing, she thoroughly enjoyed it. (There's no accounting for taste, you know.)
My point is that if this girl couldn't stay awake during a movie she desperately wanted to see and that she was enjoying, right up to the moment when she conked out, then there is no way on earth that she could stay awake while reading a chapter in some deadly dull, pedantically written textbook.
Okay, not all textbooks are dull and pedantically written. But you must admit that a lot of them are. Furthermore, even the ones that are engagingly written still make rather rigorous intellectual demands on you, and if you are sleepy you are going to find it very hard to meet those demands. In fact, you will find it hard to stay awake past the first page or so, if you even get that far.
I know. It happens to me, too--even when I am reading something that I enjoy and that I want to read. And I am an avid reader, a skilled reader. But if I am also a sleepy reader, I have to keep taking short naps every few pages.
So if you're falling asleep every time you try to do your assigned readings, understand that an important contributing factor might be that you simply aren't getting enough sleep.
Then do something about it.
Some of what you are doing that keeps you from getting enough sleep may be outside your control. But a lot of it really is a matter of choice, not necessity. As an adult, it's your responsibility to cut back on unnecessary activities in order to regularize your sleep schedule and make sure you are rested enough to function mentally.
You'll know you're getting enough sleep when you can hop out of bed each morning without regret, with plenty of energy to tackle life's necessary tasks.
Of course, your reading assignments may still be difficult and boring enough to make it hard to concentrate on them, but at least you won't be falling asleep over them.
Surely you can see how much easier that would make the task of getting those readings done.
NOTE: This "essay is actually a section from a chapter in my as yet unfinished handbook Why You Can't Keep Up with Your Reading Assignments--and What You Can Do About It.